The ways in which engineers select materials for projects has, for many years, remained unchanged. The tendency is one of human nature – towards a reliance on prior experience, existing contacts, web searches, or sticking to what they know has worked well before.
This has been further cemented by a need to meet numerous strict standards in materials, particularly around safety. Many engineers respond to this in the same way – they simply rely on previously used materials and may be unaware of equivalent materials standards that permit a range of alternative selections.
Engineers’ reliance on existing ways of working has limited innovation. It has also left enormous scope for them to discover much more interesting and effective solutions for their projects.
Some 84 per cent of engineers still carry out a simple Google search as their first port of call when looking for materials for a project, according to research by online materials platform Matmatch, in conjunction with BCG Digital Ventures. Other key resources include supplier websites, trade shows and scientific journals. In addition, people typically search for the materials, brands and standards they already know, or they use an in-house database, rather than seeking new items. This stymies innovation.
“We’ve found that engineering project managers and material engineers, when they take on a new project, tend to start with their own knowledge and explore limited options from there,” explains Melissa Albeck, CEO of Matmatch. “They think along the lines of materials that have worked well for similar applications in the past. And those materials might well do the job, but there could also be something out there that would really be a much better fit for that product.”
“In effect, many engineers’ reliance on search engines as the primary means through which they look for materials creates a problem common in the consumer world – they start by typing in terms they already know something about,” says Albeck. “The aim for us is to help people break out of that cycle and to give them instant access to information on other viable and potentially more advantageous alternatives.”
Matmatch is creating an easy route to discovering and accessing these other materials. It has developed a free-to-use online platform, which allows anyone in need of materials to search a database of thousands of examples, including metals, polymers, ceramics, glass and composites. Engineers can assess the particular properties of different materials, compare their viability for specific uses, and discover equivalent standards of the available materials where needed.
“Until now, a lot of people have tended to rely on their own knowledge, or asked people around them, because it has been so hard to find the right data. That’s the issue we are solving,” explains Albeck. Matmatch’s database gives engineers access to a range of key details about different materials, with all the information having come from reliable sources, and verified by an in-house team of material scientists. The company also uses machine learning to predict materials data, and sees potential in using technology to automatically match engineers with materials.
Crucially, suppliers of many materials can be contacted directly through the platform, enabling engineers and project managers to get in touch with experts, who can advise and assist with the right materials. Before Matmatch, companies would have had to search, sometimes extensively, to find material information or procure those materials.
The platform, designed to provide users with a much more straightforward route to pertinent information, is used among engineers finding solutions for everything from wind turbines to ship parts to consumer goods and beyond.
A development engineer at a major sports car maker recently found the platform useful as a means of identifying quality materials and suppliers for vehicle interiors. Typically, in the car industry, engineers would search online, visit trade shows and discuss the details with contacts before deciding on materials for a new project. A key benefit of Matmatch proved to be the ability to have an overview of and comparisons between different material suppliers. The engineer explains: “Trade shows contain mainly a closed circle of companies, and to open that circle with a platform will be important in making materials sourcing in the automotive industry more dynamic.”
For smaller firms too, the potential impact of opening up free access to vast swathes of data – on tens of thousands of different materials – is essentially limitless. Materials innovation has tended to be the preserve of some of the very largest companies – Apple, for example, might roll out a new product using a completely unconventional material, but as Albeck explains, “it has the resources and the in-house expertise to focus on experimenting with multiple unusual materials where others generally would not. Now other companies can more easily try useful alternatives”.
“Historically, smaller companies have tended just to go with the cheapest material that’s out there, or just whatever will be the quickest to market,” she adds. “That restricts innovation because if they’re not looking into the options and asking if there might be better materials available, then it is harder to take things to the next level.” With the Matmatch platform being free to use, it is expected to democratise information across industries, encouraging innovation from early-stage start-ups to large businesses.
Ultimately, for Matmatch, the goal is to continue opening up and making more easily digestible details on as many different types of materials as possible. There is already information on thousands of distinct materials on the company’s database, but more are being added frequently.
By using the new tools, engineering project managers can move away from less effective ways of working and instantly tap into an online database of materials to transform their product creation.
To find out more about how to find the best innovative materials for your next project, visit matmatch.com.